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For Better or Worse, Africa’s Digital Future is Tied to China

China’s infrastructure building spree in Africa is now visible in dozens of countries across the continent. Big signs that advertise the names of Chinese state-owned contractors hangover construction sites for roads, railways, airports and other projects. But out of sight, the Chinese are also leading another infrastructure building boom that is just as important, if not more, than the thousands of kilometers or roads they’re building.

Chinese tech companies are now the most important players in Africa’s rapid emergence as of one of the world’s fastest growing digital markets. PRC companies, private and state-owned, are working with local telecom operators across Africa to build powerful new data hubs to accommodate the surge in internet traffic, wiring up the continent with new fiber optic connections and selling enormous quantities of low-cost smartphones that make it possible for millions of consumers to go online for the first time.

Shenzhen-based Transsion’s now controls 30% of the entire African mobile device market, surpassing Samsung and Apple.

While all of this new connectivity is great and benefits tens of millions of people in a market that has long lagged behind the rest of the world, China’s increasingly indispensable role in Africa’s information market is also a source of serious concern. In particular, African human rights activists and political dissidents worry that the Chinese will import the same digital surveillance technology Beijing uses at home. China, after all, has built the world’s most controlled internet ecosystem that effectively monitors content and the movement of people with the help of advanced facial recognition and big data technologies among others.

Will the Chinese now bring that model to Africa?

Not according to Iginio Gagliardone, a new media and human rights researcher at both Wits University in Johannesburg and Oxford University in the United Kingdom. “After analyzing different cases in China’s contributions to the shaping of ICTs in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Ghana, I discovered that the contrary appears to be true,” he said in a new article he wrote for the University of Hong Kong’s website Asia Global Online. “China seems to have kept true to its pledge to support nationally rooted visions of the information society, rather than promoting template approaches,” he added.

But even though China may not be imposing its own approach to technology on African governments, that doesn’t mean that potentially dangerous Chinese technology isn’t making it into the hands of some of Africa’s not-so-democratic leaders. Case in point: Cloudwalk, a Chinese technology company based in Guangzhou, announced a deal in April to sell artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition systems to the government in Zimbabwe. Similarly, Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE have also reportedly sold sophisticated digital surveillance technology to Ethio Telecom in Ethiopia, according to a 2014 report from Human Rights Watch.

Show Notes:

About Iginio Gagliardone:
Iginio Gagliardone is Research Fellow in New Media and Human Rights in the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. His research focuses on the complex relationship between new media, political change, and human development and on the emergence of distinctive models of the information society in the Global South. His past and current research projects have explored this relationship from different perspectives: from assessing the role of new media in peace-building and state-building in East Africa, to examining the increasing role of emerging powers, especially China, in shaping the development of information societies in Africa. His most recent research projects explore the nature and significance of hate speech online, with a particular emphasis on the trade offs between freedom of expression and human dignity, and on how social networking platforms are responding (or failing to respond) to the challenges hate speech presents.

Iginio completed his PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science, investigating the relationship between development and destabilization in Ethiopia. He is also Research Associate of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge and of the Centre for Global Communication Studies (CGCS), Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania.


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